Dear Children of America,

I used to be one of you.

I used to beg and wheedle and whine and kick and scream to go to the cartoons. Any cartoons.

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Mumble channels Gregory Hines in Happy Feet.

Photo: © Warner Bros. Pictures

There was just something about those drawings-come-to-life (computer animation was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye back then) that I couldn’t resist, especially if the cartoon featured at least one preternaturally cute baby animal. Read Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, the Ewoks TV show.

But I also used to hate entertainment-with-a-message. Even when I was in pigtails, I rolled my eyes at After School Specials and Very Special Episodes of Growing Pains. It was never the message per se that made my skin crawl; drunk driving and homeless Leonardo DiCaprios were, I agreed, bad. Rather, it was the beat-me-over-the-head-with-a-love-cleaver method that folks in Hollywood employed to make their points, subtlety be darned.

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So I steeled myself to be both charmed and slightly annoyed by Happy Feet, an animated movie with an environmental message that follows an emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) from egghood to fuzzy babyhood to kinda-fuzzy young adulthood. His dad, Memphis (Hugh Jackman), drops him as an egg, and as a result Mumble can’t sing a lick — but he can dance like Gregory Hines.

Exactly how socially debilitating is a lack of singing ability in Antarctica? Imagine a world where every kid in your school is texting away like a fiend, but you were born with some freaky condition that makes your fingers swell up like balloons every time they get near a Sidekick. In other words, instant social death.

Anyhoo, Mumble’s singing deformity and unnaturally happy feet are soon noticed by the penguins’ spiritual leader, who swiftly blames him for every problem in the colony, including a recent fish shortage. (Side note: Said spiritual leader is suspiciously reminiscent of John Lithgow’s tyrannical anti-dancing minister in Footloose. Never heard of it? Ask your parents to rent the flick for you in a couple of years, if only for a chuckle at the tractor-chicken scene and Kevin Bacon’s hair.) After he infects the colony with dancing fever, Mumble is cast out by The Man and heads off with his mandatory coterie of cartoon sidekicks to find the “aliens” he’s convinced are taking all the fish.

Naturally, he soon finds them in the form of human beings manning massive fishing trawlers. Flinging his brave little fuzzy body into the roiling waters, he chases down the trawlers, hoping to talk the aliens into giving back the fish. Courageous acts, social redemption, and consciousness raising ensue.

First, the good news: I was not annoyed by Happy Feet‘s environmental message. The movie manages to introduce complex issues (food chain disruption) in surprisingly subtle ways (birds start stalking baby penguins because they don’t have enough fish to eat). Now, the bad news: Everything else in the movie annoyed me.

Here’s my Happy Feet genesis theory: A bunch of movie executives got together and decided that if they dumped every cartoon convention into a Big Movie grinder, they might end up with a hit.

Judging from the last couple of weeks’ box office totals, they were right. Alas, their cookie-cutter cartoon-with-an-environmental-message also comes with a few unadvertised messages — and socially irresponsible ones at that. Apparently, all females in the South Pole are hip-swaying, breathy-voiced, man-crazed pushovers, all Mexicans are short, and all African-Americans are superfly playas. It seems Antarctica is a land of overwrought stereotypes as well as overwrought singing.

Of course, judging from all the giggles I heard coming from you kids in the audience, maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t understand modern animation at its finest. (And to the few of you who turned around and glared at me as I whispered frantic apologies to my roommate for dragging her to this movie, I’m sorry.) But can you blame me for dreaming of a day when a movie with an environmental message doesn’t suck? This is America in the 21st century, kids. Sometimes all you can do is dream.

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